Trails and tails

Dog sleds race through Baldwin in Sweetwater Challenge

BALDWIN — Ask a musher about the sensation of being pulled through frozen forests by a pack of wolf-like dogs who are leading you down a path you’ve never before traveled and they’ll likely use one word to describe it: Peaceful.

“It’s just really peaceful,” said Grand Rapids resident Mariel Versluis. “All you hear is the dogs breathing and the skis whooshing through the woods. Usually the first couple miles are not peaceful, but that is the payoff.”

Nine teams — some from as far away as southern Illinois and Wisconsin — met at the Last Chance Retreat and Trails in Baldwin for the Michigan Dog Drivers Association’s Sweetwater Challenge, a two-day noncompetitive dog sled event that gives mushers a chance to whip through the woods with their dogs and relax with friends.

The retreat, owned by Baldwin residents Rich and Linda Lange, hosts two challenges each year and several musher boot camps during the off-season. Drivers from across the Great Lakes region are drawn to Baldwin because of the quality of trails found in the Huron-Manistee National Forest.

“We definitely have the best trails in the state, in my opinion,” Rich Lange said. “The condition of these trails for running dogs is in good shape. That’s one way to judge a trail. You also judge it by how challenging or scenic it is, and we have all that. We have good trails that are not for the novice and extremely scenic.”

Each musher could choose different trail loops to travel, with the option to run as little as 10 miles or as many as 30 miles.The trails cut through an area of forest that has trees that are several hundred years old and have never been logged, Lange said.

The Sweetwater Challenge attracts two different types of mushers: The traditional dog sled team, which uses at least six dogs to pull a musher standing on or riding a sled, and skijor teams, which use two or three dogs to pull one person standing on cross-country style skis.

Versluis uses her two German shorthaired pointers for skijoring and travels around the country to compete. On Saturday morning, she completed a 10-mile loop with her dogs. Versluis said she enjoys the sport because it is so fast-paced — her dogs can run a mile in three minutes.

“I like the speed,” she said, laughing. “The sled people always try to talk me into sledding, but that pace, I just can’t deal with it.”

Donna Jankowski, a musher from Lake Villa, Ill., has been participating in MiDD races for four years and has attended several musher bootcamps at Last Chance. She uses a sled to run the trails and has a team of six dogs, five of which are rescue dogs. She competes in races throughout the Great Lakes region during the winter but said she always looks forward to the races in Baldwin.

“The trails, the scenery, the other mushers — it’s just a wonderful atmosphere and a wonderful camaraderie,” Jankowski said. “The trails here can be very technical, so you have to keep your speed down to be safe. ... There’s narrow trails, steep inclines and downhills, it’s not just a flat trail. I’m just getting to the point where I can finally start to enjoy the scenery.”

Jankowski prefers distance to speed, in part because it takes so much time and effort to travel to each event. She has participated in four-mile races with large cash prizes that are all about speed, but tends to seek out noncompetitive events like the Sweetwater Challenge that give her an opportunity to spend a lot of time on the trail with her team and connect with others who love the sport of dog sledding as much as she does.

“There’s no animosity toward anyone because you passed them on the trail or anything like that,” she said. “There’s no money involved. It’s just about being out on the trail with your dogs and watching all your training efforts come to fruition.”

There’s nothing that compare to the satisfaction of a good afternoon spent on a dog sled trail, Lange said, and that’s what draws people to a sport that leaves them out in the cold.

“Dogs make life bearable, especially under these times,” Lange said. “They’re the best mental relief you can get from what goes on in the day-to-day. You take eight of your dogs and go out on a 20-mile run, spend four hours in the woods taking in Mother Nature and the peace and quiet — it doesn’t get any better than that.”